That’s what really baked my ham about “Northern Exposure.” It was all lip service, all expository dialogue about the wide-open cultural horizons of the fictional Cicely, Alaska and very little in the way of follow-through. No one on that show could buy a cup of coffee without quoting Kierkegaard, but at the end of the day did you ever see Shelley or Ed tapping their fingers and broadening their minds with Balinese gamelan music or the blithely lumped-together genre of “European punk and hardcore?” Hell, no!
World music, if that term really means anything, has been steadily gaining commercial ground over the past 15 years. There are many reasons for this, not the least of them being that Paul Simon’s Graceland demonstrated beyond a doubt that “world music,” or at least guest artists from elsewhere in the musical world than just England, could be hugely profitable for record companies and palatable to mainstream audiences who would have backed away nervously at the mention of a Fela Kuti album just five years earlier. Graceland put Africa on the musical map for a lot of people, and the album that followed, The Rhythm of the Saints, did much the same thing for Brazil.
But the truth is, “world music” doesn’t really describe anything. Or, if it does, it excludes as much as it includes. Better to just say that you like music in a general and all-inclusive sense and are willing to try almost anything once. If it were really a world party, the umbrella heading of world music would have to allow for things like Latvian nationalist speed metal and not just gamelan or the innocent pounding of Pygmies on hollow logs in the depths of the rainforest. And, as we all know, it doesn’t. For a term as boastful with its all-comers connotations as world music, the genre’s window on the world can be pretty selective.
Even more unsettling is the idea that many of the artists and styles that world music fans take to be representative of a country or a culture merely reflect what we want to believe about them. Fans of Brazilian bossa nova and tropicália, for example, might be in for a rude awakening to learn that Brazilian kids are more into a down-home version of hip-hop with dirty lyrics and the same bowel-evacuating basslines that throb out of cars rolling up and down the main street of Anytown, USA. The same can be said of almost any music, of course. Fans of Swedish hardcore—and Sweden is famous in punk circles for its hardcore bands—are often surprised upon actually visiting the country to find that most Swedes haven’t the foggiest idea who these musical exports are.
So, what are you supposed to do with world music? Well, I for one propose doing away with the term entirely. Like any other kind of music, it all comes down to finding something you like and then fingering the edges for any connecting tissues that might be attached to something similarly satisfying. And there’s nothing as satisfying as landing squarely on something new and exciting almost by chance and discovering that there might be a hundred or more records out there just as good or better. If you like the hybridized Brazilian music of a skinny white American guy who sings like Peter Lorre, you’ve got lots of nice surprises in store for you.
Invoke, Arto Lindsay’s second album for Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label, is sure to win its share of converts on the strength of DiFranco’s endorsement alone. The speaker-shredding bedlam of his days in New York experimental noise bands seems well behind him now, but Invoke is still likely to raise a few hackles. Like its predecessor, Prize, Lindsay’s new album is firmly devoted to the miscegenation of Brazilian styles that fans will either love or hate for their being lumped together so damn seductively.
Lindsay, in fact, would seem a most unlikely champion of Brazilian music. Gangly and bookish, he looks more like a reclusive literature teacher at a private liberal arts college than someone who would ever be seen wielding a guitar in anger, much less rubbing up against some Brazilian beauty at a Rio ghetto funk party. It’s hard to look at the guy and think about sweaty thighs. Born in the United States and raised in Brazil at the height of the’60s Tropicália movement, however, Lindsay has been dialed in tight with the constantly proliferating tumult of Brazilian rock, pop, funk, bossa nova and samba for well over 30 years. Prize was a pleasant discovery, but Evoke displays Lindsay’s gift for mashing together styles and rhythms, electric and acoustic, digital and analog with even more intriguing results.
Not surprisingly, what does result is less an earthy, viscera-grabbing take on Brazilian pop than a cool, controlled and cerebral one. Lindsay’s thin, nasal voice never really hands you over to the music, and he’s only got one delivery to boot, but there are plenty of places where even this nerdiest of frontmen can’t keep the acid-jazz trappings and from boiling over with dirty, dirty funk, as on “Clemency.” Challenging and exciting stuff, and sure to winnow out the world music purists from the ones who are really looking from something new.